The Predicament of the Individual
The University Bookman is pleased to present this exclusive interview with James Poulos, doctoral candidate in political theory at Georgetown University and founding editor of the blog Postmodern Conservative, hosted by the journal First Things.
You have been associated with something called “postmodern conservatism,” most visibly on your blog of that name. What is “postmodern conservatism?”
Back in 2005 I had just moved to Washington, DC. While waiting to hear back from graduate schools it seemed right to start a blog; for my birthday, my wife gave me www.postmodernconservative.com. Soon thereafter I discovered that Peter Lawler, Berry professor of political theory, had published a book called Postmodernism Rightly Understood (pun applicable, if not intended). But my wife had recognized my organically home-grown variety of “pomocon” even before I did. It wasn’t formulaic or methodical but providential, contingent, and personal. I like the idea that pomocon itself reflects those characteristics, and I think their confluence in everyday life puts more than myself in a pomocon state of mind.
We pomocon bloggers haven’t come together because our intellectual eHarmony profiles are identical. What we have in common is better captured by the Jeff Foxworthy approach. “You might be a pomocon if . . .” you think a truly good life is accessible to us all even though the good life as conceived in premodern times isn’t. You might be a pomocon if you think liberalism, because it isn’t just a symptom or consequence of a pathological modernity, may be constructively and fruitfully criticized. You might even think that “modernity” itself is a category that obscures more than it reveals about the challenges and possibilities of doing good and doing well in contemporary life.
You might really be a pomocon if you think left postmodernists tend to talk and act like hypermodernists, fusing many pathological aspects of that life into a kind of moral ideal. The abstract quality of this thing called modernity is apt to cloud the debate between critics and champions of contemporary life, driving everyone toward an increasingly all-or-nothing attitude that is itself one of our big pathologies. Lost in the mix, I think, is that the drama of our time is less about the qualities of Science or Capitalism or Secularization than it is about the character of the individual.
If we start out by trying to understand the predicament of the individual as such, we might stand to learn a lot about what kind of life we’re stuck with and to what extent that’s a good thing or a bad thing. That doesn’t mean public life is a fiction or an outmoded fantasy—only that the body politic or the communal whole simply isn’t, and I’d say can’t be, the protagonist of our lives anymore. That means having a good one is dependent on understanding what it means to be a good individual. I do think our fantasizing obsession with individuality is actually luring us away from the realism of that understanding. To me, postmodern conservatism is particularly helpful here, and this is one of the reasons I’m embarking on a dissertation about individuality after Napoleon.
Famously, the editors of National Review announced, in its inaugural issue, a desire to ride athwart modernity, yelling “stop.” Is this conservative opposition something that has served its purpose, but that conservatives should now leave behind?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to halt our train of thought right in the thick of its preoccupation with modernity. Obviously the NR editors meant that our headlong “progress” along a number of cultural and political vectors should be arrested before it dumped us into an unrecognizable and unfree future. They rightly judged that our destiny is always already in our hands, and that fobbing it off on one of those Inexorable Forces I mentioned above, which we always get into when talking about “modernity,” is dangerous because fundamentally they are illusions. They mask our agency or choice-making, and our responsibility for it too.
That doesn’t mean certain hard-to-stop balls haven’t been set rolling. Clearly technology, commerce, and democracy have been set loose on the world, though just as clearly with mixed and uneven results. Rather than leaving behind the oppositional spirit set out by NR’s founding editors, conservatives should perhaps consider leaving behind the language of modernity in which it’s been phrased. I know I’m stepping into a thicket by saying this, because if there’s one attitude I want to firmly reject it’s the one that says that all whomever needs to do to succeed is “change their messaging.” Conservatives give the game away to fear that they’re always in danger of being outmoded and must constantly “update” their “brand” to conform to whatever style of thinking and talking is fashionable.
The way we conceptualized conservatism at the height of the twentieth century reflected a very legitimate practical response to certain problems and temptations in the real world, and today those problems and temptations look different. They carry different weights and fit into a different bigger picture. Rationalism in politics, to take one example that should resonate across the right-leaning spectrum, looks a lot different before and after 1968. Democracy promotion looks different before and after 1991. Deficit spending looks different before and after 2006, and even more so after 2008.
The big challenge today, I think, is convincing people—especially younger people—that a life in which political liberty has been readily surrendered in exchange for great cultural or “personal” freedom is not a good life, either individually or socially. The willingness to be carried along to that destination, particularly under the impression that it’s basically inevitable, ought to be something that everyone with anything at all nice to say about NR’s editors should unite against.
Are there are writers or thinkers, either past or present, who can guide conservatively minded people into this postmodern conservatism?
I’ve already mentioned Peter Lawler, who’s not only edifying but a pleasure to read. No conversation would be complete without reference to Philip Rieff, the great sociologist whose Triumph of the Therapeutic was released in a fortieth-anniversary edition by ISI Books. Not only is Rieff one of our best guides to what kind of individual we have on our hands today and why; he’s also a bracing antidote to nostalgic thinking about recovering a happy past. He’s also a Jewish thinker, and the influence of Hebraic thought on postmodern conservatism, at least as I see it, is significant enough to mention here.
One predicament we face today is that many smart people like certain things about Christianity—like the forgiving, transformative power of love—but not others; so on the one hand we see “secular” life getting more spiritualistic in this way while on the other our religious life seems to be drifting toward what’s been called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” That mouthful of a phrase is misleading in several respects, but it does suggest a movement in which Christianity is supposed to be “perfected” by shedding some of its most important characteristics. I find it telling that the Judaic and Old Testament character of Christianity is oftentimes the first, and the main, thing to go.
It might be possible to articulate a wholly secular postmodern conservatism, but I’m not the one to do it, and I’d ultimately argue against anyone who did. You might be a pomocon if you find G. K. Chesterton and Walker Percy to be good reading. But writers who aren’t quite pomocons, like Reinhold Niebuhr and Michael Oakeshott, are also important to contend with. Russell Kirk himself has recently been described as postmodern . . .
What does a “postmodern” turn mean for conservative publications?
To have it my way, I’d say it means a fresh honesty and comfort concerning the difference between style and substance. Yes, conservative publications can avoid stodginess without lapsing into fatuity; but a more recent problem involves some conservatives hunkering down into a rote or formulaic style, departures from which are adjudged sins of substance. We’ve seen this recently with the absurd debate over flag lapel pins, and even more recently with the conflation of policy and rhetorical performance art during the unrest in Iran.
Conservatives once characteristically and rightly condemned the left for substituting the empty and self-congratulatory symbolism of solidarity for the hard work of actual thought. I’m dismayed by how often this now gives way to pot-on-kettle violence. Yet any attempt to make style safe from substance, or substance safe from style, is bound to result in hypocrisy, absurdity, and failure. Conservatives nonetheless worry that they can’t do style without trying to be “stylish”—either failing in the effort (bad) or succeeding at the price of conservative authenticity (worse).
This apparently minor issue is actually one manifestation of the huge anxiety conservatives are struggling with today over the question of “mere aesthetics.” Conservatives are at great pains to convince themselves and one another that their vision of the good or virtuous life is not a mere lifestyle choice. Conservatives don’t just want to experience happiness or individuality—they want assurances, reliable enough that their souls may rest in them, that their progeny will be able to live, indefinitely, more or less as they do. If there’s no reason to live that way outside idiosyncratic personal choice, they’ll fail to inculcate their way of life, and lifestyle-choosing liberals will turn their children and grandchildren into individuals who could be just anyone. Conservatives aren’t doing a good enough job of getting the better of this anxiety, and it shows—in their discomfort with and in their half-conscious imitation of our ironic, knowing culture of self-conscious performance.
To an extent, this is not a skill easily learned, and I expect that what would come naturally in this regard to the next few generations of conservative writers and editors might never really sit right with their elders. Yet, again, I worry about “prefab” conservatism among the young in the same way I’m concerned with knee-jerk liberalism among the young. Postmodern conservatism is quite against the vision, which I’m sorry to say has infected some conservative precincts, of politics as PR.
Are there elements of the rise of the “movement” that should be reconsidered in light of our current cultural condition? I am thinking here of Bill Kauffman’s reclamation of certain part of American radicalism for a conservatively inclined populism. Are there others?
I’ve just hinted at one, I suppose. Invoking Bill Kauffman immediately brings antifederalism to mind. I have to say I don’t have much use for George McGovern’s politics; I’d really prefer his close friend Hunter Thompson’s. Thompson’s “Freak Power” platform was over the top in its anti-corporatism in a way that worked because it was so local: I defy anyone to say with a straight face that Aspen isn’t a corporate amusement park. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to live a life worth living in Aspen, of course. It does mean we should muster the confidence to reject the conquest of local life by corporate hugeness when appropriate. I disagree with my friends at Front Porch Republic that basically it’s always appropriate to do this. I do think a culture of local argument about that appropriateness, on a day to day basis if need be, is part of the work of politics and citizenship that Tocqueville saw as indispensable to American freedom as we know it. No comprehensive doctrine can get us out of that hard work without real cost.
Thompson, by the way, is supposedly this gonzo leftist, but we should be astounded by how ambivalent he was about sexual libertinism relative to the good bourgeois liberal of today. The right really needs to rearticulate a confident view of sex—one in which beauty, virility, and fertility are admired as the noble things that they are, as against the ignoble, blasé, routinized transgressions that all too often pass for passionate adventurism among college students and midlife professionals alike. It’s not at all a question of puritanism. When it comes to our sexual culture, I’d like to see conservatives cultivate an ethic of contempt for simple pleasures cheaply won. Who knows—it might even rub off on our culture of consumerism.
One thing conservatives really should reconsider is the relationship between capitalism and individuality. It isn’t the “logic of commodification” that’s led us to treat one another so willingly as commodities. It’s our lust for individuality that’s led us to pattern our relationships with things of the world after our twisted relationships with one another.
In a recent blog posting, you compared “a way of life” with a “lifestyle,” as a way to draw out some critiques of how we determine what modes of living are “valuable”; what is the significance of the difference between the terms, if there is one?
I’ve tried to leave a trail of breadcrumbs that would lead to this question and half-answer it in the process. For conservatives the question is a philosophical one—that of “the whole” versus “the parts.” Let me explain. Some philosophers want to remind us that in ancient times, pagan and Christian, life was grounded in an understanding that it made up or embodied a coherent, unified, comprehensible whole. The fundamental truths about being human pointed us clearly toward patterns of conduct and modes of relations that worked together harmoniously and authoritatively to connect each person to all and all to the human good. Individuals, though irreducible and important, were merely parts of the human whole, and the social order—in keeping, it should be noted, with the sacred or eternal natural order—was the proper “unit of analysis” for measuring the achievement of the good life.
Now obviously this view is inimical to the (small-l) liberal view. Liberalism, which not coincidentally came of age as a political philosophy during the Napoleonic era, rejected the classical notion of the good of the whole in both its extant varieties—the “Athenian” whole of Aristotelian Thomism, on the one hand, which had been adopted by the Catholic Church and rooted deep in the Old Regime of France and the Holy Roman Empire, and, on the other, the “Spartan” whole of Revolutionary Republicanism, inspired of course by Rousseau. Importantly, however, French liberals like Tocqueville and Benjamin Constant opposed a third vision of the whole—the “Chinese” vision of despotic administrative imperium advanced by the physiocrats and philosophes.
Tocqueville was an aristocratic liberal in his official and unofficial life; Constant, much closer to us today, oscillated between a public vision of the individual free to choose his own happiness and a private life hamstrung by the unhappy dramas of individuality. This genteel political philosopher of liberty suffered roughly in romantic servitude, involved in a messy, stormy, and lifelong liaison with the most imperious Madame Germaine de Stael. It was crucial for Constant that the disordered, unofficial life of private individuality be segregated from the ordered official life of public individuals—for the benefit of public and private alike.
Constant’s liberal vision split the whole of the good social order in two. And it inclined us contemporary folk to think of happiness in quantifiable terms and individuality in qualified ones; government could learn how to make us objectively happy while staying out of our idiosyncratic personal projects, however much they might seem to be making us miserable from someone else’s perspective. Our political equality of radical sameness and our social equality of radical difference would mutually reinforce each other. Securing objectively good rule meant abandoning the vision of an objectively good way of life: let a thousand lifestyles bloom.
And here we are today. The vision of the good social order as a comprehensive whole is rightly in the past; but mere lifestyles make us pathological in unofficial life and inclined toward servitude in official life. Or so I argue, at any rate. The controversy continues.
Posted: June 29, 2009 in Interviews.
Bruce S. Thornton
Volume 42, Number 4 (Winter 2003)